Pick your news flash:
600-Plus Astronomers Battle Forest Fires
PRINEVILLE - A large number of dedicated amateur astronomers gathered near a
massive fire in Central Oregon. They bravely set up their camps and telescopes,
confident of a succesful weekend. Their presence brought forth heavy rain and
unseasonable cold, thereby reducing a large fire to ashes in no time.
Professional firefighters began mop-up work and moved to other fires. While no
Forest Service officials were available for comment, no thanks were necessary:
the astronomers knew they had performed a great service. Even fires in far-off
Idaho and Montana benefitted from the selfless act of those who participated in
the thirteenth annual Oregon Star Party. With the fires beaten down to more
manageable proportions, the well-rested astronomers headed for home.
Astronomers Find 'Twilight Zone' Portal
MITCHELL - A large gathering of amateur astronomers found that the number 13
still carries black-magic powers. The Thirteenth Annual Oregon Star Party was a
festival of the bizarre, with flying tents and sunshades, rumbles of thunder,
bursts of heavy rain, and two separate incidents that required hospital care.
While many read the signs and fled at the earliest chance, those who withstood
these events reached the strangest time of all - on a fog-enshrouded hilltop in
arid east-central Oregon, strange lights weaved across the sky in shades of red
and white. Looking almost like a light-sabre scene from recent movies, the
scene brought forth shouts and nervous glances about the field. Suddenly, the
fog retreated, leaving an ink-black sky punctured with brilliant stars and
intense Jupiter as it rose in the east. Telescopes were uncovered, and three
hours of stargazing materialized out of the three-day gloom that shuttered the
heavens and darkened many hearts. The weekend could not be rationally
explained, and the last stragglers packed up on a rainy Sunday, relieved that
the two who were hurt were recovering nicely and grateful for those few hours of
crystal clarity to justify the long drive to and from the site.
However you describe it, the 2000 Oregon Star Party was not a typical one! Since our arrival at Indian Trail Springs site in 1992 we have always had at least one excellent night of observing during the official Thursday-to-Sunday event. This year, however, weather forecasts were pessimistic up to a week before the event, and they never deviated from their track. For extra drama, the Hash Creek forest fire was burning out of control a dozen or so miles to the northwest. The early part of the week still looked promising, though, so many people arrived early enough to capture some views before the party's amenities (food service, toilets, showers) arrived on site. These had to contend with a northwest wind which occasionally blew smoke from the fire over the observing field, making observing impossible and breathing difficult. Still, with the forecast looking gloomy, any observing was worth doing - and those on the scene took full advantage.
By midday Thursday, clouds and winds were increasing. The OSP site is notorious for its dust-devils on warm days, and Thursday will not be forgotten by those who arrived early. A huge, thick devil vacuumed the site, lifting tents, brochures and other gear like dry leaves. One of the aluminum-framed sunshades flew high in the air, spun a while, then chose the worst moment to return to earth, hitting an attendee hard on the head. One of the volunteer first-aid personnel was on site at the time, and she did what she could while a helicopter was dispatched from Bend. The woman was taken directly into surgery. It was a scary time, and everyone at the event sent prayers and best wishes with her on the helicopter. In the meantime, clouds continued to fill the sky, resulting in a beautiful sunset but only patchy observing for the first hour or two of the night. Everyone got a full night of rest, despondent that the weather service had gotten this one right.
On Friday, a small trickle of cars headed for home, convinced that things would only be getting worse. For the most part they were right, but the Oregon Star Party is more than just an observing event. With amenities like the shower truck and catered food, several vendors selling gear from their motor homes and tents, speakers on many aspects of astronomy, and projects for the children, something of interest is going on all the time. However, the rains finally arrived in the afternoon and soaked the site. Optimists pointed out how the smoke from the forest fire would be diminished and the air would be cleaner; pessimists packed up and checked out. The popular telescope tour was postponed, since all telescopes were displaying tarps rather than technical innovation. The rain eased before sunset, but skies showed no interest in clearing in the near future, so another good night's sleep was available. Everyone would be rested for observing the next night!
Saturday began brightly, with plenty of blue arriving around 8AM. Many people saw this as false hope, however, and kept their bags packed. Sure enough, more midday rains dropped by and sent more people headed for the exit. This must have been an interesting sight for those who continued to arrive, finding good spots available for setting up even though they arrived late. While many chose to stay at home for the weekend, our overall attendance for the 2000 OSP was 758, a new record for the event! Unfortunately, the clouds were in charge again - heavier rain and grumbles of thunder kept people on the move all afternoon and evening, and the Mars Rover Races were just ending when a squall dispersed the group. The skies did part for a moment, allowing for a sunny group photo (although several dark clouds posed in the background). The main tent was overflowing for the door-prize drawings despite the diminished crowd, prompting organizers to make plans for a larger tent in the future. The husband of the hospitalized woman showed up as well, bringing us the great news that she was expected to recover fully from her injury. He accepted our good wishes, a contribution for flowers - and later won a door-prize for a trip to Kitt Peak Observatory! Many other great prizes were given out, then another shower kept many pinned down for dinner. Many more attendees took this as a last warning, and the road was filled with departing vehicles just before sunset. The last speaker, Adam Block from Kitt Peak, still spoke to a nearly-full tent, but he had to speak up to be heard over more growls of thunder. His talk ended just as another downpour began, and after waiting it out a bit longer, the audience slunk or scurried to their camps, expecting nothing to come of this night.
At 10PM the patient were rewarded by a peculiar sight: fog! Skies had cleared rapidly after the last downpour, and now all that moisture was looking for somewhere to go. Fog in central Oregon is rare enough, but at 5000 feet on TOP of a hill? A dozen or so potential observers shot their flashlights into the gloom, and soon light-sabres began stabbing the night sky from several directions. Within a half hour, though, the sky turned black and the fog slid down the hillsides as Jupiter and the Pleaides shone brightly the east: observing time at last!!
By this time, of course, many telescopes were snugly in their vehicles or even already home. Many others were dismantled and tightly wrapped, and owners were unsure if this was true clearing or just one huge sucker hole. Therefore the scene was dominated by smaller scopes that could be rapidly moved from vehicle to ground without unwrapping, truss-building or long cooling times. The first hour was excellent, with great views of Jupiter and Saturn along with the usual autumnal delights. A good number of meteors passed overhead as galaxies and star clusters were explored by eager amateurs. A few clouds drifted by, and the clearing behind them wasn't quite as sharp as before. By 1AM it was clear that the show was nearly over, with heavy dew moistening people and gear. Another half hour brought the curtain down, with only first- and second-magnitude stars showing. While better than nothing, it was not the sort of night commonly associated with the Oregon Star Party. Those who witnessed it, however, were grateful for the few hours to appreciate the night sky.
Sunday morning showed the clouds were again in control. The registration tent came down during yet another shower, and another OSP came to a close. It was unusual in many ways, but could not be called anything but successful: more people, plenty of activities, great company, and plenty of rest made for a good time. Next year's event will be just after the Perseids peak, always an entertaining show. Will we see you there?